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Why Men Who Suffer From Anxiety Need To Be Taken More Seriously

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Why Men Who Suffer From Anxiety Need To Be Taken More Seriously

Earlier this week, Zayn Malik cancelled one of his biggest gigs of the year at Capital FM's Summertime Ball.

The chance to play in front of countless fans at Wembley Stadium was unfortunately taken from the former One Direction singer just hours before his performance due to 'the worst anxiety of his career'.

While many can't sympathise with a world-famous multi-millionaire artist currently dating one of the world's top models, there are a group of people who can fully empathise.

Those that suffer with anxiety suffer in silence and often alone. When people can't see a problem, they often don't think it's there, which is what makes the stigma around mental health, specifically anxiety, such an issue for those that have to live with it day-in, day-out.

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Anxiety doesn't care whether you're tall or short, rich or poor, a success or a failure - it can creep up on anybody at any time in their lives.

Having suffered with anxiety issues myself, and speaking to others who've also been affected, there's one thing that has cropped up in every single person's account: speaking to someone openly and honestly about it for the first time is the hardest part of dealing with it.

I can admit, I've lied to people I love about how I feel day-to-day, and I've lied to people I love about who I've told. You find yourself saying anything to stop talking about it. Somehow I find it easier to talk about it on a website four million people read every day than talk about it to the people I'm closest to.

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I only suffer mild anxiety and have learned to deal with my down days, but for many people, the problem can completely consume their lives.

After asking you, our audience, to discuss your own experiences with anxiety, my inbox was absolutely flooded with messages from people who wanted to talk. And I just want to use this as an opportunity to say, I read every single one, but it's impossible to email back almost 300 people!

What immediately struck me was the sheer volume of emails from women willing to talk in comparison to men - for every four or five emails from girls, I'd receive one from a lad.

One email, from 21-year-old Matty Janney, began by explaining one of the biggest issues many lads with anxiety have to battle.

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"I think there's a very dangerous stereotype for anxiety which is that only females really get it but on the odd occasion a male has it, it just means he's weak. I can't stress enough how wrong that is."

And that's just it - anxiety can affect any one at any time and in any walk of life. It doesn't make you weak or less of a man to have mental health issues, but it's one of many barriers to lads openly speaking about their issues that can be extremely difficult to overcome.

Matty continued by explaining: "I'm a pretty typical bloke. I play sports, I love a drink, I'm rubbish at talking to women, I go out most weekends and I'm in a pretty ruthless group chat. Except I suffer with anxiety."

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It's a typical life, the only difference between someone with anxiety and without is the constant ongoing battle with an invisible problem. Often, with something you can't see, you can't fully understand and that's exactly the case with anxiety and the stigma around anxiety sufferers talking to those without the problem about it.

A typical stereotype for someone suffering with mental health issues is that they must be suicidal and therefore just desperate for attention. Nothing could be further from the truth. While some cases do manifest themselves into suicide attempts, the vast majority of people with anxiety have never contemplated ending their life or self-harming.

18-year-old Greg explained to me: "When people hear about depression and anxiety, the thing that usually springs to mind is someone on the verge of killing themselves or hurting themselves for attention.

"This is often not the case. The reason most people kill themselves is to escape the fear and pain, not for attention as it's usually shown.

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"This lack of understanding worsens the condition as people don't treat it with the right amount of care as it should be. This in turn alienates those with mental health issues even further, adding to their feelings of isolation and loneliness."

That feeling of loneliness and isolation is always there, as any anxiety sufferer will tell you, but the actual attacks creep up on you much more suddenly than you'd imagine.

20-year-old Flynn Sygrove explained his frightening first recollection of an anxiety attack in a situation we've all been in a hundred times before.

"I went into town with my friends and I felt this overwhelming sense of entrapment in my body and mind, like I was going to die right there and then, even though I was just buying some clothes," he said.

22-year-old musical theatre student Thom Whyte developed anxiety when he was around 10 years old, seeing a child psychiatrist to help him cope. When he was 18, his psychiatrist unfortunately passed away and Thom's life began spiralling out of control. A performer by trade, he only realised how deep-rooted his problem was when he had an anxiety attack on stage during a pantomime.

"My social life took a dive off a cliff. Parties would leave me heaving and shaking and starting to stutter. I can't cope in large crowds and public transport is hard.

"As soon as I walk on a bus I feel that people are staring and it makes my spine shiver. I'm a 22-year-old who hasn't been to a club in three years."

How anxiety manifests itself physically comes in many forms. A knot in your stomach to a heavy, thumping heart. From hot, clammy skin irritation to your legs feeling like jelly. Stuttering your words to barely being able to take a breath. Feeling nauseous to physically heaving in public places.

Physically, anxiety is tough to deal with. Psychologically, it so much harder.

"It would make seemingly the simplest of tasks feel impossible and a wash of fear would come over me," husband and father Rob Saunders explained.

"Something like getting up to put something in the bin while waiting at the doctor was impossible. I'd feel like the second I stood up to walk to the bin, everyone's eyes would be on me, waiting for me to trip or miss the bin, making me look like a failure."

Rob would often sit with a piece of rubbish in his hand, overthinking this scenario for over an hour before being called by the doctor, scrunching up the rubbish, putting it in his pocket and disposing of it when he got home.

Jake Wilkinson, 18, described his emotional turmoil like 'every little thing I do is being scrutinised by people around me'. When his one close friend moved away, he attempted to become a 'regular teenager' and get a close group of mates, but it never worked out for him.

He explained: "I fully believed I was some sort of joke to them. I felt people were laughing at me behind my back. It feels as if every little thing I do is scrutinised and I am judged and made fun of - even mundane things like my choice of t-shirt or taste in music.

"It's so hard to get away from that feeling because, as daft as it sounds, I will never be able to know what people truly think of me."

Things that seem trivial can often consume an entire day for an anxiety sufferer. But how are you supposed to talk about your feelings with your closest friends and family when they're conditioned to know a different version of you?

Professor of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, Stephen Wood, explained how young men often have the most trouble talking because of social expectations to 'man up'. I mean, how many times have you heard that phrase in your life?

He says only one in ten men will seek help and that men between the ages of 16-24 are the least likely to go and get help, and yet they're the most vulnerable as most mental health issues have set in before the age of 25.

"There are certain attitudes about men and how they should behave and how they should talk about their feelings," Professor Wood said.

"This is a problem because men need to be allowed to say they don't feel too good and not be regarded as weak and allowing it to become what they think is a stain on their personality."

People often behave in certain ways around certain groups of people - admit it, you're a different person in front of your mum and dad than you are to your pals down the pub.

But being close to these people means they're often the ones that you can't speak to about your problems. They have a certain expectation of you and your personality and you don't want them to think any less of you. And there, again, is a problem.

As you scroll through social media and see friends and family out in the world doing amazing things, it's easy for jealousy, envy and eventually anxiety that your life is stood still while everyone around you moves forward, to set in.

But Professor Wood believes social media actually has a big role to play in helping those who suffer from anxiety and wider mental health issues.

"It's helpful to follow people who are going through the same things and to have those support networks," he said.

"I know of two young people who met on the Internet and it was so useful for them that they didn't know the personality of the person they were speaking to.

"It is much easier to open up to someone who has no expectations from you and your personality. Finding someone on the Internet can be a lot easier to get you talking about it."

Despite it being one of the hardest steps, talking isn't enough. While the government and the general public are beginning to treat mental health more seriously with bold statements and initiatives, in reality not enough is actually being done to combat the ever-growing problem.

According to the latest figures, £600 million is being taken out of the NHS mental health budget, an area already severely under-funded and, arguably, unfit for purpose.

"What people find when they seek help is that the help isn't there. People feel like no one is taking them seriously," Professor Wood continued.

"They feel like services aren't really set up for them, they're not welcoming and it puts people off going back - that is a really big problem.

"There is a lot more press coverage and a lot more words being said but it hasn't fed through yet to better organisation and better funding for mental health services."

Professor Wood added that on the NHS, someone with a mental health disorder can have up to 10 therapy sessions before they have to start paying privately. Would a cancer patient be turned away after 10 chemotherapy sessions? Until mental health is treated like any other disease, it will always be seen as a bit of a joke.

He added: "There's a one size fits all attitude."

There is hope, however. The more vocal and the more serious the problem becomes, the less likely the government and those in power are to ignore it. If the NHS mental health services aren't fit for purpose, change will come - people simply have to persist.

While nationwide changes in NHS services can't be changed overnight, neither can the stigmas we've talked about extensively be altered so quickly. But, in time, things can change. Look at attitudes towards gay people 25 years ago compared to now.

"No one wants to be the first person to put their hand up and admit they have a problem but someone has to do it," Professor Wood said.

"Stigmas are changing. There is still a slight stigma around coming out as gay but for the vast majority of people, it's not important any more. That wasn't the case 25 years ago.

"The same is happening for mental health."

Reading this article, I'd be surprised to find a young man who hasn't been able to relate to at least some of the feelings, physically and emotionally, described throughout. Though it doesn't necessarily mean you have a mental health disorder, it's important to know how to deal with life's stresses so it doesn't manifest itself into something more serious.

Professor Wood's three-step guide to preventing mental illness should help.

  1. What are the things that keep you mentally healthy? What do you do when you're stressed to relax you? Do more of that.
  2. Find people you can talk to about your problems, free of judgement. There's no point going to your closest friends if they're not helping the situation - it doesn't make them NOT your friends.
  3. Like any other illness, go and see a doctor as early as possible.

The stereotype says that men with mental illnesses are weak. The reality couldn't be any further from the truth. It takes incredible strength to live with a mental illness, and even more to actually go and seek help.

Anxiety, depression and wider mental health issues are a growing problem in the UK and abroad. Hopefully this generation can be the one to put an end to stupid stigmas stopping people getting the help and support they need.

None of us are alone.

Words by George Pavlou

Featured image credit: Bob Sizoo

George Pavlou
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